Underestimating the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is a matter of course for many Asia specialists in the West, as senior US military officials concede. Some reasons given for overlooking China’s naval potential are specific to China. Also commonplace, however, is the claim that a great Chinese fleet won’t take to the sea anytime soon simply because it takes so long to build one. Typical of the genre: writing last year, George Friedman of the private intelligence firm Stratfor maintained that China possessed only:
‘a weak navy that could not survive a confrontation with the United States….China does not have the naval power to force its way across the Taiwan Strait, and certainly not the ability to protect convoys shuttling supplies to Taiwanese battlefields. China is not going to develop a naval capacity that can challenge the United States within a decade. It takes a long time to build a navy (my emphasis).’
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History suggests otherwise. Determined nations can bolt together powerful fleets with alacrity. Beijing may even hold an edge over seagoing rivals like liberal India, which likewise covets a world-class navy.
As historian Alfred Thayer Mahan observed: ‘despotic power, wielded with judgment and consistency, has created at times a great sea commerce and a brilliant navy with greater directness than can be reached by the slower processes of a free people.’ Mahan’s point of reference was the French monarch Louis XIV, the Sun King whose navy mounted a stubborn challenge to British naval mastery throughout his long reign.
Over the past 150 years, both authoritarian and free nations have assembled strong fleets quickly. China commenced building an oceangoing navy around 30 years ago, in tandem with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform and opening initiative. Use that as a benchmark for past naval powers. What had Japan accomplished in the nautical realm 30 years after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when its emperor set in motion the construction of a modern navy? By 1898 the Imperial Japanese Navy had defeated the Qing Dynasty’s Beiyang Fleet, and it was scant years from sinking two Russian fleets. Such feats of arms established Japan as East Asia’s maritime hegemon.
The United States followed suit. Congress authorized the US Navy’s first modern men-of-war in 1883, after the navy had fallen into decrepitude. Fifteen years later, the rejuvenated US Navy quashed the Spanish Navy, wresting a modest Pacific empire from Spain in the process. By 1913, three decades into the American naval project, the US battle fleet, or ‘Great White Fleet,’ had circumnavigated the globe and returned home in good order. And soon it would grow into a ‘navy second to none,’ to borrow US President Woodrow Wilson’s memorable phrase.
The German Reichstag enacted its First Navy Law in 1898, inaugurating Imperial Germany’s quest for maritime supremacy. So swift was the German naval buildup that Great Britain, the world’s foremost sea power, felt compelled to draw down its commitments in the Americas and the Far East, accepting the attendant risks in order to bring home Royal Navy squadrons to preserve the naval balance in Europe. Nevertheless, the German High Seas Fleet fought the British Grand Fleet to a standstill at Jutland in 1916, only 18 years after embarking on Berlin’s quixotic bid to rule the waves.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 prompted Soviet leaders to initiate a blue-water fleet capable of competing with the US Navy. By 1970, the resurgent Soviet Navy was venturing into traditional US strongholds like the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic. Some 200 surface ships and 100 took part in the Soviets’ 1975 Okean exercise. ‘What they’ve done in just 10 years is absolutely fantastic,’ exclaimed one US officer. ‘From almost nothing, they’ve built up a first-rate navy, and it’s an imposing threat.’ The Soviet Mediterranean Squadron outnumbered the US Sixth Fleet during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Shockwaves rippled through Washington as a result.
So, beware of assuming away Chinese sea power into the indefinite future. No iron law of history governs the pace of naval construction. And if one did, the United States and its Asian partners would find modern history disquieting rather than comforting.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views expressed here are his alone.